Freedom of expression in Afghanistan faces increasing threats

Freedom of expression in Afghanistan is under increasing threat, with journalists and media workers now vulnerable to violence and intimidation by both the government and anti-government forces.

Journalist Jawed “Jojo” Ahmed was shot and killed on Tuesday, while driving in the southern city of Kandahar. Ahmed, who worked extensively with international media, had been detained by US forces in Bagram Air Force Base for just under a year in October 2007.

President Karzai condemned Ahmed’s killing as “barbaric” and blamed it on the Taleban ‚ but said it “cannot sabotage the move toward democracy and freedom of press in Afghanistan.”

The Taleban’s spokesperson denied the group’s involvement. Nobody else has claimed responsibility for the assassination.

“The Afghan government should show that it can and will protect and support journalists, especially with presidential and parliamentary elections coming up in the next few months,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.

Ahmed’s killing comes one month after the Supreme Court secretly upheld the 20-year prison sentence handed down to student and journalist Perwiz Kambakhsh on blasphemy charges.

Kambakhsh’s lawyer, Mr Mohammad Afzal Nooristani, told Amnesty International that he had learnt by chance that the Supreme Court had already ruled on the case when he went to the Supreme Court on Saturday 7 March to deliver his defence statement.  A court official refused him permission to enter the Court or speak with the judges. He was told that the case was closed and that the Court of Appeal’s judgment of 21 October 2008 had been upheld.

Kambakhsh was sentenced to death for blasphemy in January 2008. He was convicted of downloading material from the internet that questioned the condition of women in Islam, adding some commentary and distributing it at Balkh University. He denies all this, saying that he had been coerced into making a “confession”. The death sentence was quashed on 21 October 2008 by a Court of Appeal in Kabul and replaced with a 20-year prison term. The case was then referred to the Supreme Court.

“If President Karzai is serious about defending free expression in Afghanistan, he should immediately and unconditionally pardon Kambakhsh,” said Sam Zarifi.

“The Afghan government should show its commitment to maintaining law and order and extending the rule of law by prosecuting people facing credible allegations of serious human rights abuses and engaging in criminal enterprises, including those holding high positions in the government.

“Human rights and putting an end to repressive policies under the Taleban were often touted as the justification for international intervention. Foreign governments who provide military assistance and aid to Afghanistan therefore should help ensure that human rights of Afghan people are upheld,” said Sam Zarifi.